The uneasy truce in southeastern Ukraine appears, mostly, to be holding, a development that the Russian government in Moscow is celebrating as a hopeful sign for a besieged region.
Moscow, the word comes, has been deeply troubled by the fighting in the region, and particularly its effect on civilians trapped between the warring Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists calling themselves the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
The problem with best wishes from Moscow is that _ in the eyes of everyone not beholden to the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin _ there would be very little fighting in the region were it not for the Russian weapons and troops. Some experts even think that Russian soldiers are responsible now for nearly all the fighting.
While Putin’s government continues to deny any involvement in hostilities, the evidence is overwhelming. There are, of course, the numerous videos and photos of Russian military equipment and personnel in Ukraine today. There are the growing numbers of Russian troops taken captive in Ukraine or returned to Russia in body bags.
In July, time and again, Ukrainian forces found themselves trapped between shelling coming from separatist-held positions as well as from Russia. Just weeks ago, as Ukrainian forces were advancing, and appeared to be having some success, there was a sudden new flow of troops and arms. Ukrainians and Americans say the new forces were Russian military.
There are also satellite images of Russian artillery batteries set up in traditional Russian military formations and using traditional Russian tactics.
Most glaring of all, experts say, is the timeline that would have been required to establish a separatist fighting force as effective as the one that’s fighting Ukrainian government troops now.
The so-called Donetsk republic didn’t exist even as a movement before April 7, and yet it was fighting, and fighting effectively, before summer. That means that within a couple of weeks, the separatists not only had managed to recruit a sizable force, but also had armed it and trained it.
As Canadian army Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, the chief of media operations for NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, noted, that isn’t possible.
The separatist force isn’t fighting as a ragtag, insurgent force. It’s mechanized, armored and very well armed. It shoots a lot of artillery, but doesn’t run out of shells. It moves, a lot, throughout the region, but doesn’t run out of fuel. Its troops don’t go hungry and don’t go home during duty. And when the separatists need reinforcements, those “new recruits” not only arrive but also operate like a unit.
“With NATO, at the most basic level and if all the stars align, it takes us a year to get a private up to this level, meaning highly supervised,” Janzen said. “For the officers, for the more complicated command and coordination aspects, it would require at least five years of training.”
Konrad Muzyka, an analyst who specializes in the Russian military for the consultancy IHS Jane’s Europe, said that if you started with a group of volunteers with past military training, it would still take six months of training to get them into fighting form.
“You want them to fight conventionally against an opponent who is better trained, better equipped and possesses air superiority,” he wrote in an email response to questions. “First and foremost is training. Improving cohesion, interconnectedness and overall ability to conduct joint operations takes time.”
While the Donetsk People’s Republic existed in April, it was occupying government buildings in cities around the Donetsk region, and there was no sign of large-scale military training or even much recruiting. When the force began fighting, it appeared fully formed.
Janzen said the separatists “know what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is textbook Russian military tactics.”
He added, “You can’t take people off the streets and in a couple months get them to this level of quality.”
Janzen said one of the best pieces of evidence that the separatists were Russian troops was their use of artillery. Artillery requires complex math, and practice, and precision requires extensive training by entire units. The use of artillery, especially in the most recent push to the port city of Mariupol, has been quite precise.
The separatists have tried to explain this by saying they’ve been bolstered by vacationing Russian troops. But Janzen and others noted that the skill of recent assaults would mean entire units chose to vacation together.
And that’s just the shooting part of the battle. The logistical support would have taken even longer to organize.
Further, the weaponry that’s being used, Muzyka said, isn’t easy to come by. For one, the weapons would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Even if the separatists had that kind of money, there’d be problems.
“One cannot go to a shop and buy a BUK or T-72,” he wrote, referring to anti-aircraft missiles and tanks that the separatists have been using. “They cannot buy this stuff in this volume so fast. It has either been donated from Russian armed-forces stock or Russian regular units are deployed there with their standard equipment.”
His analysis: Russian troops. NATO estimates there are “several thousand” Russian troops now fighting in southern Ukraine. Muzyka said he was beginning to wonder whether many Ukrainians were fighting for the separatists.
“Make no mistake, in terms of Russian units, what you see now in Ukraine is top of the cream,” he wrote. “You will not find better trained and equipped units in the Russian armed forces.”
Keir Giles, a Russia expert at England’s Conflict Studies Research Center, said a good basic rule on how long it took to become an effective fighter in the Russian military was the one-year conscription Russia now required. He said Russia obviously thought it took a year to forge an effective soldier.
That, he said, made it farcical to think that it’s separatists operating at such a high level in southeastern Ukraine. He said it was a situation similar to Crimea, when Russia also denied its troops were there, only to admit later that Russian troops had occupied the peninsula.
Putin certainly knows the denials aren’t convincing, but he isn’t concerned, Giles said.
“Western leaders are supposed to tell the truth when they can,” he said. “Putin does not buy into that notion, so he doesn’t care how bad the lies sound if there’s no advantage to telling the truth.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained some misspellings of the breakaway region of Donetsk.